NGOs are changing the way they measure famine, hunger and malnutrition and will release 2012 numbers in mid-2013. The latest statistics show that 925 million people in the world are hungry. The problem is especially dire in Subsaharan Africa with 239 million hungry, and in Asia and the Pacific where 578 million people are hungry. In round numbers there are 7 billion people in the world. Thus, with an estimated 925 million hungry people in the world, 13.1 percent, or almost 1 in 7 people are hungry.

Famine is a more complex problem than a shortage of things to eat; it is a challenge of market and distribution, the result of a long, slow decline in access to food. That decline may occur for any number of reasons, including natural disasters, politics, repressive governments, and poor management of resources. The famine cycle may be triggered by a natural disaster, but is often exacerbated by man-made issues, such as reduced wages and/or rising food prices.

ID-100211735According to the United Nations’ definition, a “famine” has taken hold when at least 20 percent of households in an area face extreme food shortages; more than two people in 10,000 are dying each day (from both lack of food and reduced immunity to disease); and more than 30 percent of the population is experiencing acute malnutrition. In addition to the current famine in Somalia, other food crises have recently hit the African Sahel region and Kenya, Tajikistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

Much can be done before hunger turns into a crisis of such proportions: disaster preparedness can help prevent food insecurity and famine. In the Horn of Africa, for example, experts have noted that poor policy, inflated food prices, dependency on aid, and other “man-made” issues have led to an ongoing cycle of famine, returning in varying severity every few years.

Key Facts

  • The large majority of famines can be predicted well in advance. By the time pictures of emaciated children appear, various factors have been exacerbating the situation for years or even decades. Communities already “on the edge” can be pushed over that edge with a large event, such as a tsunami, or a sequence of events, such as several seasons of low rainfall. They may already experience food insecurity, which exists when people lack sustainable access to enough safe, nutritious, and socially acceptable food to support a healthy and productive life. Warning systems are already in place to track such factors as a decline in earnings and a rise in food prices, yet few people —including donors — attend closely enough to such warning systems.
  • Breaking the cycle of famine requires more than assistance from external agencies. The most effective famine prevention comes through ongoing partnership with those in the affected communities, shoring up resources and strategy in advance of a crisis while still respecting local culture. Areas that receive cyclical assistance from outside sources can become dependent on that help rather than harnessing resources to break the famine cycle altogether.
  • There are no quick-fix solutions to famine. Just as a famine does not occur overnight, neither does its resolution—or the prevention of another famine in the same area. Philanthropic efforts must take a long-term view in addition to meeting the immediate needs of starving populations.
  • Famine is not something that happens only in the developing world. Food shortages affected millions during the Great Depression of the late 1920s to early 1940s in the United States, when employment reached over 20 percent. Pockets still exist where malnutrition and food insecurity are high due to a lack of access to food, especially in rural areas. Sparsely populated communities may be surrounded by cash crops but have no local food shop, or they may have no ability to travel to the nearest one. In the United States, these areas are known as “food deserts.”

How Your Can Help

Donors seeking to provide disaster relief and to reduce the risk and realities of ongoing famine should:

  • Support NGOs working with populations currently experiencing famine. Aid must be balanced between meeting immediate needs and preparing for the future.
  • Fund research into the underlying causes of famine in various areas. Develop strategies to mitigate future disasters in partnership with well-established, well-connected NGOs in famine-prone communities.
  • Invest in agricultural technologies and methods of bolstering crops without harming the environment. Rotation of crops, for example, can help prevent degradation of soil.
  • Invest in innovative food storage and distribution systems. Famine does not necessarily mean no one has food; it may mean that some have food and some do not, but a lack of communication and/or access prevents food from reaching those most in need.
  • Be mindful of early warning systems of famine.  Maintain a proactive stance on the next possible crises using resources, such as USAID’s FEWS Net.
  • Advocate for the mobilization of resources and/or pressure on predatory governments. Foreign government policies often help push at-risk populations into crisis.

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